Oyster farmer reviving Barnegat Bay's rich shellfish bounty

Matt Gregg, of Forty North Oyster Farms, moves around bags of starter seed oysters in his beds in the waters of Barnegat Bay, off Little Egg Harbor. (David Gard)
MATT GREGG ONCE HAD one of the most glamorous jobs in the world. He was a talent agent, booking musical acts for William Morris Endeavor, one of the largest global talent agencies. He worked with up-and-coming musicians — house music, dub step, the whole modern urban scene. In Beverly Hills, where he'd been flown for an interview, he learned that thousands were competing for the position, an inches-thick stack of résumés. "All right," he thought. "See you never."

Trouble was, even after he got the position, Matt Gregg didn't think it was one of the most glamorous jobs in the world. He wanted to grow oysters.

"Before I did this, I worked in New York City and thought about this every day."

Today, Gregg is the owner of Forty North Oyster Farms. And even though it took him five years to get all the necessary permits (his work is regulated by 11 governmental agencies), and even though his entire business was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy (just four days after his first sale), he'll tell you that now, finally, he has the best job in the world.

First, because of the nobility of the work. Gregg is an environmental pioneer, rescuing an entire ecosystem. A man can take enormous pride in that.

Second, because of the setting. It's a New Jersey you didn't know existed. Acres and acres of salt marshes that unfold, like a watercolor, into the ocean. His fellow commuters? Monarch butterflies, blue herons, fiddler crabs and the majestic osprey.

At William Morris Endeavor, Gregg's phone rang nonstop and his email inbox was forever full. In New York City, Gregg was restless to be outside and the walk from the Port Authority to 53rd Street just didn't measure up. At the Jersey Shore, Gregg can spend an entire day on the water, puttering quietly in his quaint red-and-white lobster boat that he picked up on Craigslist, and never see another person. Even in July.

In the end, though, it's because of the oysters. Who knew an oyster from Jersey could taste so terrific? The oysters from Forty North are even better than West Coast oysters, says restaurateur Chris Cannon, of Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in Morristown.

Cannon is a partner in the business; he invested in Forty North after Hurricane Sandy. He anticipated, in return, fresh local oysters at a good price. But, as Cannon will tell you, the oysters pulled from the bay waters of Jersey, and their distinct briny taste, have been one of the best surprises of the past year.

To be accurate, it was Gregg's foray into the music world that was an aberration. He grew up in Avon-by-the-Sea, a childhood filled with fishing and surfing. He worked at an oyster farm while attending the University of Rhode Island. For him, a life on the water seems less a yearning than a need. He stands confident and tall at the helm of his small boat, ancient seafarer meets visionary hipster, and, as ecological entrepreneur, symbolic of an entirely new master of the universe.

He began with an idea, and little else. To move forward, he needed permits from a variety of governmental agencies, including numerous divisions within the state Department of Environmental Protection, plus the Army Corps of Engineers and the state and federal Departments of Agriculture. It took years, and the process was frustrating. At times, the barriers seemed impervious, but Gregg always felt that the rewards would be great if he could break through.

An oyster farmer has fewer worries than other farmers. Yes, predators exist, stingrays and blue crabs, but those can be thwarted by keeping the oysters in mesh bags. And yes, weather matters -- east winds are bad news and can wreak havoc on the oyster beds, destroy some of the lines. But otherwise, oysters don't require much fussing. Gregg buys his seed oysters from Rutgers, nurtures them in a nursery, sends them out to mature on the farm when they reach 8 millimeters. They are ready to harvest in 12 months to 14 months. Most of his job is grading -- sorting the oysters according to size -- graduating them to different bags as they grow.

No feed is required. Oysters feast on algae. In essence, they are nature's filters, also removing dirt and nitrogen from the water. To farm oysters is to promote sustainability in a way that other seafood businesses cannot.

To Gregg's thinking, it's a win-win-win. It's a win for Barnegat Bay, because a bay with oysters in it is less clogged, which allows other sea life to thrive.

"A healthier environment is our only byproduct" is a company motto. "The water was always clear 100 years ago. Oysters just did the job," says Gregg. "Our little farm is not going to have a huge impact, but it will have an impact locally."

It's a win for the customer, who increasingly seeks fresh, local ingredients.

And it's a win for Gregg, who is uniquely positioned as one of the few, but growing number of oyster farmers in Jersey.

Barring a hurricane.

Gregg says he's lucky he didn't realize immediately the severity of the damage done by Hurricane Sandy. His boat was gone, but he thought perhaps his oysters had survived. It was weeks before he could confirm that they hadn't. They were swallowed up in the mud.

"If I had known that immediately, I would have been depressed."

Still, he knew he'd be back. "I just had to figure out how."

He launched a Kickstarter campaign, then sat down with a few potential investors. It was entirely a "Shark Tank"-like situation, says Gregg. In the end, a partnership with Cannon was most logical. Cannon now owns 20 percent of the business, and his $65,000 investment allowed Gregg to begin again. "It's smart for both of us," says Gregg, who calls it a symbiotic relationship. "I'm at Jockey Hollow two times a week, because they go through so many oysters."

Gregg also has a symbiotic relationship with Rutgers, which is responsible for the modern oyster industry in the first place. In the 1980s, Rutgers developed a disease-resistant strain of oysters, to fight against parasites, a breed line that is used throughout the industry. "Rutgers is world class when it comes to oysters," says Gregg.

Gef Flimlin is considered one of the guardians of Barnegat Bay and enthusiastically promotes Jersey shellfish. Flimlin, a marine extension agent with Rutgers Cooperative Extension, was a guest speaker at an oyster symposium last year at the Montclair Food & Wine festival, talking oysters, sharing clams. As an extension agent, he shares research with the farmers; he's now working to promote Jersey clams with the Heritage Shellfish Cooperative.

His crusade to revive the New Jersey shellfish industry is, in part, a crusade to clean the waters, a natural combatant to Shore development. The habitat is critical, not just for the creatures but for humans. Salt marshes, for example, provide a significant buffer against hurricanes.

His crusade is also an economic one. In America, he says, 91 percent of the seafood we consume is imported. Buying local is good for the economy, good for the environment. "What it means to me is that we're supporting the fisherman and the families."

Flimlin is one of those guys who knew that a Jersey oyster tasted terrific. They always have. But it's been 50 years since we've seen a thriving local industry. Those parasites, harmless to humans but deadly to oysters, were partly to blame. That problem was solved by Rutgers research. Another reason is development; changes in population density mean changes to the aquatic environment. Silt from construction, for example, clogs up a natural oyster reef.

Water quality, as too many people surmise, is not an issue. An oyster farmer can only farm in approved waters; standards are high and the water is constantly monitored. And, according to Flimlin, the number of acres of local water that meet or exceed the standards is high.

Today, New Jersey has a dozen or so oyster farmers in the Delaware Bay, another six or seven along the Atlantic Coast. It's more than the state has seen in 50 years.

The timing is right. Oyster bars have become so ubiquitous in New York that Pete Wells, restaurant critic for The New York Times, joked that the city must have a new law mandating them. And the language of raw oysters has taken on the language of wine.

It's not an outlandish comparison. An oyster, like a grape, tastes like its home. The early oysters from Forty North impressed customers with their buttery, mild flavor. But last year, Gregg was approved to farm in a second location, 2 acres of water with a higher salinity. Now, the Forty North oyster also has a nice little kick.

Flimlin is amused by such precious talk. "I find it a little snobby," he says. "Just eat the oysters. Don't get them up your nose."

Jersey clams, to Flimlin, are another issue entirely. "Clams are magical."

This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Inside Jersey, a Star-Ledger Magazine.